Dispatch from Panama: Arriving at STRI

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ATM blogger Megan Gambino is spending this week in Panama reporting on research taking place at two locations—Barro Colorado Island and Bocas del Toro—of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute (STRI). Read on in this dispatch and in future installments to follow her day-to-day adventures.

Day 1: Trekking around Barro Colorado Island

After arriving in Panama City last night, I woke up early this morning and drove 40 minutes north out to Gamboa. The further I got from the city, the denser the forest seemed to grow. The transition was quite remarkable. The leaves got bigger and bigger—palm fronds drooping under their weight and fern-like leaves seemingly on steroids. It reminded me of what I had read in Elizabeth Royte’s book The Tapir’s Morning Bath just days earlier: "Here things got large, even unseemly: flower petals the size of cake plates, beetles like grenades, leaves as long as coffee tables." Gamboa, a Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute outpost, is flanked by Soberania National Park and the Panama Canal. About 3,000 people called Gamboa home in the mid-20th century. But now the population hovers around 300, half STRI employees and half canal workers. Just beyond the town, STRI has a dock, from which they ferry researchers and visitors about 40 minutes further up the canal to Barro Colorado Island.

Once on the ferry, it was the passing freighters that were gargantuan, disproportionately tall compared to the width of the canal. Needless to say, they dwarfed our little tug. But we motored along until, around a bend, yellow stucco buildings with red roofs came into sight.

Situated on a hillside in a quiet cove, the field station attracts researchers from all over the world who want to study the rich biodiversity of the nearly six square mile Barro Colorado Island. (Close to half of the 220 mammal species in Panama live and reproduce in Barro Colorado Island, as well as one-tenth of the world’s bats.) To provide a quick history of the island, in 1912, the construction of the Panama Canal caused the Chagres River to rise, forming Gatun Lake and isolating the island. Eleven years later, a group of scientists convinced the governor of the Canal Zone to declare the island a biological reserve. In 1940, the U.S. Congress took control of it, and by 1946, the Smithsonian Institution became its official steward. STRI, the research station, really got off the ground in 1966. Since then, it has grown into a mini campus complete with offices, dorms, a dining hall and a visitors’ center. Researchers flock there for the biodiversity, of course, as well as the access to technology (there are seven radio towers on the island that track tagged animals) and posh (well, for field stations) accommodations.

The first person I met up with on the island was Robert Horan, a researcher from the University of Georgia, who will be working at BCI for six months to track tree frogs. He offered to guide me on a walk through the forest, and we hiked a figure eight on the trails in the northern part of the island. I saw evidence of the research being done on the island—leaf nets collecting falling leaves and fruit so that scientists can better understand the pollination schedules of little-known trees; a radio tower that collects data from tagged ocelots, agoutis and other animals; cages set as traps for ocelots in order to tag them; and heat and motion activated cameras. Hoots, chirps and howls filled the humid, earthy air, and it seemed like there was a surprise—agoutis, howler and spider monkeys, lizards, tamarin, stingless bees, land crabs and crested guan—lurking around every corner.

The two and a half hour hike, in which we spent some time wandering off trail, was certainly not the 10-cent tour, which I appreciated. Robert agreed with me: you really need to get out and sweat to write a story.

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